Beta reader horror stories...

Updated: Jun 25, 2021

Inez shares her bad experiences with beta readers and how YOU can save yourself a headache when doing a beta reading swap!

Hi everyone, Inez here. Today, I'm diving in deep on the subject of beta readers. Finding a beta reader can be a fantastic way to level up your writing game. For me, it’s honestly the only way to catch my crutch words and kill those darlings. I also made lovely writer friends!

However, when it comes to beta readers, there is definitely not a one-size-fits all. Beta readers are human, so naturally, we come with our own strengths, weaknesses, styles, tastes and foibles.

Throughout the years, I’ve done countless beta reading swaps and while most have been postive and helpful, I've had a number of swaps that have gone very wrong. Not only were these swaps not helpful, they also derailed my writing process. Now, I only agree to swap small sections at the time. When I spot any of the warning signs, I very politely thank the beta reader for their consideration and whatever work they've done so far, finish what I said I would do, and very quickly and definitively end the swap.

If you’re looking for a swap or having trouble with an existing one, save yourself from the mistakes I've made by looking out for the beta readers that fall into these Very Scientific, Totally Statistically Accurate, And Definitely Not Something I Just Made Up categories.

Types of toxic beta readers

Writer, beware!

The Editor: This person has confused being a good editor with being a good writer, so they think if every letter and punctuation is perfect, they will be the Best Writer Ever, and agents will be tripping over themselves to snap up the book. Even though, in my humble opinion, “amazing editor” and “amazing writer” rarely describe the same person. Why not? It takes an entirely different personality type for each (editors are great at knowing and following rules... and writers are great at breaking the rules and doing whatever stupid, off-the-wall, wild idea that pops into their mind at 2 am after a bottle of wine........ wait, is that one just me???).

The One-Trick Pony: This person read a blog article, attended a writers’ conference, or maybe just had a super picky beta reader (perhaps the one mentioned above) and now is a zealot about a very particular grammar element. For example, she might absolutely loathe passive voice. Which, to be fair is definitely overused (I am 100% guilty of that myself), but it’s impossible to completely remove it from a book. I mean, you could, but you would have to do incredibly awkward word gymnastics to remove it. And passive voice does exist in the English language, so presumably, there are some cases in which it can be used effectively. But the One-Trick Pony has an irrational urge to purge all [enter particular pet peeve here] from the book and stops at nothing to see every single use of it removed, no matter the awkward, unnatural phrasing you will have to use in its place.

Your Mum: This person is perfectly happy to praise and celebrate you because, hey, you tried. She will hang whatever rubbish you’ve produced on the fridge and cover it with gold stars. She might be a genuinely nice person who just loves everything, or, cynically, she might not want to be bothered with giving actual feedback and will just claim that everything is fantastic. If you need a pick-me-up, this type can be a great reader, but at the cost of genuinely useful feedback. I think of it a little like sitting on the sofa and binge watching three hours of Netflix. It feels good at the time (much better than, say, running 5km) but I personally feel much better after the exercise than I do after the Netflix. Having my writing picked apart with a critical eye feels extremely painful at the time, but after all the edits are made, I feel a million times better.

The Revenger: This person is only interested in giving feedback insofar as it makes them feel better about whatever comments you left on their work. Did you mention that their villain didn’t seem menacing enough? Well, YOUR villain isn’t menacing. How about a romance that didn’t sizzle? No, YOUR romance doesn’t sizzle! Their feedback has very little to do with your work and a lot to do with their own frustrations and insecurities.

The Regurgitator: Some beta readers do this accidentally, especially if they are new to the game. They will take the feedback they got on their piece or something they read in a writing craft book, and decided that because it sounded smart enough, they can just copy/paste it onto the work they’re reading. You can spot a Regurgitator when they use a lot of big words like 'denouement' in a vague way. (Of course, some people who use these words actually know what they mean, but the clue is the vagueness or if it doesn’t seem to fit the particular situation.)

Hulk, smash! This beta reader approaches feedback like a wrecking ball. Their criticism are blunt, overwhelmingly negative, and vague. You'll hear things like "The magic system makes no sense", "This chapter is pointless," and "I don't understand this character at all" -- all of which may be correct, but the lack of specificity makes the statements basically useless. Maybe the magic system is confusing or the character's motivation is fuzzy, but you're no closer to figuring out WHY that might be. Sometimes, you can coax them into giving more specific feedback by asking them where exactly they got lost or to point to examples of confusing passages. But for the most part, they are like the Hulk: mean, green, and completely unwilling to give any nuance or actionable advice.

The Skimmer: We're all busy people and this distraction-filled world makes focusing on reading more difficult than ever. At some point, every beta reader will miss a key detail or fail to put things together (I'm certainly guilty of this!). And yet, there are beta readers who take this to the extreme. I once had a reader who had seen a character's name 45 times (as confirmed by CTRL+F) and still left a comment on the 46th mention saying, "Who's this?" Even the most forgettable character in the world doesn't deserve this kind of treatment! (That said, as a warning to writers -- don't mention something ONCE and expect readers to remember 100 pages later.) In my experience, the speed at which someone reads does play a role in how deeply they read. Not every single speed reader misses details, but many do. If you know one of your beta readers goes through vast quantities of books very quickly, they might be skimmer.

These are the ones I've encountered so far, but are there ones I've missed?

And now, after all my whinging, you’re probably wondering what makes a good beta reader, right? I cover that over in this article (gotta have balance, right?).

If you're struggling to find a good beta reader who will provide constructive criticism and is sure to help you improve your writing, you're not alone! Why not enter the Slushpile Monster's writing contest to win a free critique from an experienced beta reader?

Also, don’t forget to join our mailing list so you never miss any of the games or competitions! We also share resources for writers. It's much more reliable than getting updated on Twitter, and we also have special mailing list-only content!

Inez Rodk (@inezrodk) is obsessed with all things fantasy and sci fi, both as a writer and reader. When she's not lost in a book, you can find her getting rowdy at a pub or tiling her house. She is an official beta reader for the Slushpile Monster's writing contest.

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